How to Write Epistolary Fiction

How to Write Epistolary Fiction

by Melody E. McIntyre


Epistolary fiction includes stories told through documents instead of a regular narrative. Although the term “epistolary” derives from the Greek word epistole “letter”, this term is often extended to include works comprised of other documents, too, such as diary entries, newspaper clippings, memos, etc. Sometimes this style of writing is called “found fiction” like the movie version, “found footage”. Instead of a narrator telling the story, the reader must piece it together by examining fictional documents. This style of writing can be challenging but can also be rewarding to write and to read.

Epistolary fiction has a long history, dating back to at least 1485 when the first truly epistolary novel, the Spanish “Prison of Love” by Diego de San Pedro was written. Despite drifting in and out of fashion through the centuries, epistolary novels continue to be written and enjoyed. Likely the most famous example is Dracula, which uses letters, diaries, dictation cylinders, and newspaper articles to tell its story. Today, we are going to look at some examples for ideas on how you can use epistolary fiction in your own writing.

Why Write Epistolary Fiction?

There are many benefits to writing epistolary fiction such as growing as a writer or seeing a new side of a character. Working with such an experimental form presents unique challenges but it is those very challenges that can improve your writing. I recently worked on my first found fiction story, and it forced me to think about storytelling in a new way. Epistolary fiction goes beyond the basics of “show, don’t tell” and forces the writer to only “show”. Without a traditional narrative, story and character are revealed through documents.

Rather than obscure characterization, using documents can reveal elements of a character that might not be as known in a regular story. Diary entries, letters, and other things written by the character bring them onto the page in a new way. Readers can see a character’s thoughts in first and person POV, and hear their voice in dialogue, but people write differently than they talk, and stories like this give the character a new voice.

In This is How We Lose the Time War, a story told mostly through letters between enemy combatants, both characters reveal their voice and style. Named only “Red” and “Blue”, the reader gets to know them better through their own words than through the narrative. Similarly, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we meet the main character through his diary entries. Charlie is an introvert dealing with trauma, and using diary entries presents a way for the reader to get to know him in a safe place. 


Keeping It Real

The hardest art of epistolary fiction is believability. The Blair Witch Project was a 1999 horror film presented in the style of a found footage documentary. I was in high school when it came out, and this style of filmmaking was new to most of us. Speculation about what was “real” or “fake” catapulted this movie to the front of everyone’s mind and made it a phenomenon. Modern readers (and movie-goers) will know that what they are reading is fake, but writers should still make their work as believable as possible. 

A couple of questions writers can ask themselves to stay on track. The first is “How do these documents go together?” With diaries and collections of letters, it’s easy to justify why the documents are together, but with other forms, it can be more difficult. Give some thought about why these documents are in this particular order. Is it chronological? Did someone gather them into a scrapbook? You, as the writer, have story reasons why they belong together, but the narrative will be stronger if you think about why these have been put together this way.

The second question is “Why is the character writing/recording this?” or “Would they write this?” Sometimes when I experience this style of story, it is obvious the creator did not know how to justify the inclusion of certain scenes. This is especially true when the found fiction is in the style of recordings. There are a number of podcasts who employ a “found footage” style, but their reasons for recording make little sense. Often, writers will use a film-obsessed character to justify this, and it doesn’t always work. I also find that characters tend to overshare in ways that don’t work for them just so the writer can get certain story elements out there.


Examples of Epistolary Fiction Done Right


I previously mentioned This is How You Lose The Time War as an excellent example of stories told through letters. Not only is the story told through the characters’ increasingly poetic writing, but since they are enemy combatants in a time war, they must hide their letters from everyone else. This gave the writers the fun opportunity to write these letters in strange ways, such as on leaves or feathers. This novella is amazing, and I fully recommend it.


Diaries are an easy way to dive into a character and tell a story over time. I mentioned The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but other examples include Gone Girl, The Martian, and one of my favourite books, Piranesi. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi tells the story of the titular main character as he navigates a secondary world/labyrinth that erases your long-term memory. Believing his purpose is to catalogue this strange world, he meticulously records everything in his journals, which helps combat the memory loss to an extent. Piranesi is a beautiful story about identity, loss, and trust. 

Media/Newspaper Clippings

When Stephen King wrote Carrie, his debut novel, his word count was a little short of where he would like it to be. Rather than pad his story with unnecessary subplots, he expanded the world of his book by including newspaper clippings about the main incident at the end of the story. Through this he was able to build anticipation of the climax and show the wider impact Carrie’s actions had on everyone else. 


I mentioned that recordings can be tricky to justify, but I wanted to speak about a few good examples. A main one is the podcast series, Within the Wires, where the stories are told in a variety of ways such as relaxation tapes, dictation reels, museum tours, and nurse’s notes. Some seasons I enjoy better than others, but all of them are worth checking out to see how they tell a story inside different media.

Other Formats

The styles of documents you can experiment with are endless. Stories can be told entirely in texts, memos, scrap paper, or sky writing. One collection I definitely recommend you check out is Dead Letters: Episodes of Epistolary Horror, which I reviewed here on Horror Tree. This book stories told through transcripts, police reports, court rulings, and video game walkthroughs. This collection is a good way to see the variety that epistolary fiction can offer.


Epistolary fiction encompasses more than just stories told through correspondence. It gives writers a unique challenge that lets them grow as a writer through experimentation and tell stories that they would not otherwise tell. Readers enjoy this style because when the tale is done well, they can convince themselves (at least for a little while) that what they are experiencing is real.



“A Beginner’s Guide to Epistolary Writing” Mythcreants 


“Epistolary Novel” Wikipedia 


50 Epistolary Novels to Add to Your TBR List Reedsy 

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